M’s rotation in good hands

 The baseball world has been drooling over the bevy of talented young arms the St. Louis Cardinals have boasted throughout their playoff run. Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly were integral pieces to the Cardinals’ October success thus far, and Shelby Miller made an impact during the season to help get them there.

The Seattle Mariners have quietly stockpiled their own stash of young arms over the last five years, but the attention has been minimal outside of the Pacific Northwest due to the M’s being out of contention for the umpteenth year in a row. This past season proved to be an interesting year for the Seattle rotation, featuring the debuts of a couple young studs, a couple disaster acquisitions, and a pleasant surprise all surrounding the calm that is staff ace Felix Hernandez.

Let’s take a look at everyone who started for the club this year, and how that shapes the future as the organization aims for better things in 2014.

Felix Hernandez: 31 GS, 204 1/3 IP, 121 ERA+, 1.131 WHIP, 9.5 SO/9, 5.2 WAR
Hisashi Iwakuma: 33 GS, 219 2/3 IP, 138 ERA+, 1.006 WHIP, 7.6 SO/9, 7.0 WAR
Joe Saunders: 32 GS, 183 IP, 70 ERA+, 1.601 WHIP, 5.3 SO/9, -0.3 WAR
Aaron Harang: 22 GS, 120 1/3 IP, 64 ERA+, 1.338 WHIP, 6.5 SO/9, 0.2 WAR
*Brandon Maurer: 14 GS, 90 IP, 59 ERA+, 1.567 WHIP, 7.0 SO/9, -1.1 WAR
*Erasmo Ramirez: 13 GS, 72 1/3 IP, 74 ERA+, 1.452 WHIP, 7.1 SO/9, 0.1 WAR
*Blake Beavan: 2 GS, 39 2/3 IP, 61 ERA+, 1.361 WHIP, 6.1 SO/9, -0.5 WAR
Jeremy Bonderman: 7 GS, 38 1/3 IP, 75 ERA+, 1.487 WHIP, 3.8 SO/9, 0.0 WAR
*Hector Noesi: 1 GS, 27 1/3 IP, 57 ERA+, 1.976 WHIP, 6.9 SO/9, -0.3 WAR
James Paxton: 4 GS, 24 IP, 249 ERA+, 0.917 WHIP, 7.9 SO/9, 1.1 WAR
Taijuan Walker: 3 GS, 15 IP, 105 ERA+, 1.000 WHIP, 7.2 SO/9, 0.1 WAR

(*Indicates stats from relief appearances are also included)
Wins Above Replacement totals by Baseball-Reference.com

Hernandez had a slightly down year by his standards, but even so he still proved his value at the top of the rotation. Iwakuma proved to be a pleasant surprise while very quietly putting his name in the discussion for the AL Cy Young Award. The 32 year-old had a decent 2012, splitting his appearances between the bullpen and rotation, but managed to put it altogether in 2013. While it’s hard to tell if Iwakuma can keep up this level of performance, he should be standing next to King Felix atop the rotation for at least another year, maybe two.

The only good thing I’m going to say about Saunders is that he was healthy the whole year; his line is pretty ugly otherwise, and his $6M salary will be spent elsewhere in 2014. Believe it or not, Harang was slightly better than Saunders, but was still replacement level before being released in September. Bonderman’s sample size is small as he was released after a little more than a month in the majors and provided average value during that time.

The contributions from the younger arms make this picture a lot more interesting. Maurer, 23, will likely get another look from the club in Spring Training, but it’s worth noting he’s only thrown 46 2/3 Triple-A innings thus far, so perhaps he starts the year in Tacoma to get some more seasoning, but the club sent him to Arizona this fall to get some more work.

Ramirez, also 23, has pitched well in the minors the past two seasons, but has not quite established himself as a big league arm yet. He saw his hit, walk and home run rates increase in his 72 big-league innings this year in comparison to his 59 from 2012. Cause for concern? I wouldn’t read much into it. I’d like to see what he could offer over the course of a full season in the bigs. If I had to choose between the two for a rotation spot today, I’d give Ramirez the edge.

Beavan, a former first-round pick, put together a nice 2012 campaign for the M’s, starting 26 games and providing 1.2 WAR, but spent much of 2013 in Tacoma trying to find that success. The 24 year-old still holds some potential, and will likely see future opportunities. Mariners’ brass likely will weigh the benefits of Beavan pitching out of the bullpen for the big club, or starting the season in Tacoma’s rotation.

Noesi is in a similar situation as Beavan with respect to his 2013 struggles in the minors. At 26 Noesi may still be worth keeping around, but his high walk rate and low strikeout rate hurt his bullpen value, so it’s difficult to imagine he has any chance to open next season in the starting five.

Paxton and Walker will garner most of the attention here, and that is well earned. Paxton, a British Columbia product, exploded onto the scene when he was called up in September. Paxton threw 145 2/3 innings of 4.45 ERA ball in Tacoma before giving up just four runs across 24 innings in his four big-league starts. It’s a small sample size for sure, but there’s no reason to shun excitement when looking toward Paxton’s future.

Walker didn’t make as much noise in his first three major league starts, but he definitely gave a glimpse of what he’s capable of at the MLB level after he capped off an impressive minor league campaign split between Double-A and Triple-A. While I find it doubtful that the pair will both start 2014 in the Mariners’ rotation, I would expect both to play a role at some point during the season.

It’s worth mentioning that left-hander Danny Hultzen should be mentioned in this post, but shoulder surgery will cause him to miss most or all of the 2014 campaign.

Obviously the M’s are going to be in the free agent and trade market this winter looking to add starting pitching. Their internal candidates, however, should provide lots to discuss as the Hot Stove League heats up this month.

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Jason A. Churchill

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